As a lover of touring car racing, yesterday’s opening rounds of the World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) felt like a really bad joke.
Because it certainly didn’t feel like touring car racing at all – let alone the premier touring car series in the world.
Any attempts at close racing ending in shattered bodywork and penalties from the stewards. Some of the world’s best tin-top drivers left hobbling around with arms aloft in confusion. And the dominant team resorting to team orders to lead their cars home in formation, meaning not a single battle for the lead across the weekend – despite only EIGHT cars left at the conclusion of hostilities.
This was NOT touring car racing of any description – it was an utter shambles.
Let’s breakdown just why the opening rounds of the 2014 WTCC on the Marrakech street circuit in Morocco were just so bad. And the main reason is quite simple: the new TC1 racecar, which bares about as much resemblance to a touring car as I do to Johnny Wilkinson. Certainly it hasn’t taken on board any of the lessons the Next Generation Touring Car in the BTCC has taught us. The NGTC was founded on simple principles: a cost-effective chassis which allows any team, privateer or manufacturer, to build a racecar of their choice using the body and engine of pretty much any production saloon or hatchback, and go racing competitively no matter what the budget. The proof is in the pudding – record grids this season, a huge mix of manufacturers and cars, and a variety of independents and constructors challenging for wins and the title no matter what the budget.
Clearly the FIA ignored ALL of those things when developing the TC1 specification racecar for WTCC. When you have top drivers describing it as ‘feeling like a GT car’ (Tom Chilton, TouringCarTimes) and averse to contact due to a reliance on aero, you know something has gone badly wrong. I find it strange how the FIA has been promoting F1 as needing to be more ‘relevant’ to car manufacturers, and yet with touring car racing – perhaps the most relevant racing discipline in the world – they have made them even less like the cars on the street. And in this case, more like third-rate DTM cars designed by someone slamming tequila shots. Not to mention how the new cars seem prohibitively expensive to build and run, unless you’re a manufacturer. Called Citroen. But more on that later.
So that was the FIA’s first big mistake. The second one was taking all these new, very expensive, very fragile racecars and putting the first round on a narrow street circuit full of concrete walls and tank-trap rumble stripes. With cars so flimsy that the slightest contact is enough to have entire parts of bodywork falling off, and with little to no spare parts amassed yet, what in Andy Rouse’s name were they thinking when someone signed off Marrakech as the opening round of this year’s WTCC? With a round in Paul Ricard the very week after?
Unsurprisingly, cars started dropping like flies way before racing even began in earnest. Gabrielle Tarquini’s factory Honda was out of commission after a single practice shunt, and cars ended up littering the circuit with mechanical failures after barely a handful of laps in race 1. However, the worst was yet to come. As Race 2 began with a reversed top ten grid, Tom Coronel’s Chevrolet moved Grosjean-style over to try to defend from Mehdi Bennani’s Honda. Neither driver was gonna budge, so predictably there was contact. However, what would normally have been a wall-scuff turned into a spectacular explosion of body panels as Coronel’s car ricocheted off one wall and back across the track, taking out Yvan Muller’s Citroen in the process. By the end of another 14 laps, only eight new TC1 cars were left running, and both Coronel and Muller look to be doubtful as to whether they will get their cars fixed in time for round 2.
Whilst the BTCC is celebrating 30-car grids, it’s not out of the question that the WTCC will be lining up for round two with just 13 cars or less. For touring car racing, this is a disgrace – how on Earth are drivers supposed to race when the slightest contact can put cars out of commission not only for that race, but for the entire weekend and beyond?
In amongst all this was Citroen, who utterly dominated the entire weekend, with their 3 cars regularly 1-2 seconds faster per lap. With an awesome driver lineup of 2013 champion Muller, rally legend Sebastian Loeb, and Argentine star Jose Maria Lopez, we’d surely have some excellent racing between those three for bragging rights in the elite – much like Mercedes in F1 currently, or the Ford team in the 2000 BTCC.
Nope. Not when team orders came into effect after the first corner of the first lap.
You can perhaps understand their caution, with cars dropping like flies all around them, but it was still hugely galling to see the top three effortlessly cruising around in formation making absolutely no attempts to overtake each other. In race 2 we had Loeb and Lopez breezing past their opponents like prototypes alongside GT cars, but as soon as they hit the front, that was that. Shut up shop and bring them home. And as much as it was an excellent media story to see Loeb grab his debut touring car win in the opening weekend, and nice to see Citroen making such a strong debut, it was merely the final insult to a weekend that made the WTCC look like an amateur laughing stock.
Alain Menu was quoted in pre-season interviews that he took a BTCC drive mainly because there were no offers from the WTCC incoming. In hindsight he must be chuckling to himself – he’s certainly in the far superior series this year.
One that actually knows what touring car racing is all about.
Tags: British Touring Car Championship BTCC Chevrolet Citroen FIA Honda Jose Maria Lopez LADA Marrakech Mehdi Bennani Morocco Sebastian Loeb Tom Coronel World Touring Car Championship WTCC Yvan Muller